The Drunken Juggler



Late night bus rides are never dull. After 10:01 p.m., the buses arrive at different gates, in more distant, less-trafficked chambers of Port Authority Bus Terminal (“PABT”). More tourists, more drunk people, a generic strain of weirdos and lost souls (aren’t we all?).

I arrived at PABT at 10:40 p.m. last night after seeing an opera with my friend. The next bus was scheduled for 11:05 p.m. A jocular becspectacled woman with a thick mane of dirty blonde hair bounced toward the front of the gate. Some of us were leaning against the wall and a few others, lined up.

“Where do we line up?” she said, smiling widely. “Do we stand ‘in line’ or ‘on line’? Do we have any grammar Nazis here?”

I said, “I think it’s ‘on line.’ ”

“In school it was a really big deal. We stood on line, that’s what we did. Always a line.”

“Yes, we did,” I said.

She fished into her canvas tote bag, pulled out five soft black and white balls and started juggling.

A guy leaning against the wall next to me said, “Wow, I could never do that.”

The lady said, “Oh, we can teach you. Come to Bryant Park any Wednesday between 5 and 7. We’re always there. I find it makes people smile. It’s all about getting people to smile.”

If her smile was any wider, I thought it would tear the sides of her mouth until they bled.

She dropped a ball and returned all five balls to their tote bag.

“Oh, alcohol makes everything better!” she said.

The leaning guy and I smiled at her.

Definitely a New York moment.

It was one of those times where you enjoyed the moment, but felt a bit on edge, like you had to participate in this person’s exuberance no matter how tired you were. Not necessarily a bad thing, but there was a tinge of danger and volatility to her. I thought if we looked at her the wrong way or didn’t smile, she might fly off the handle.

We were a captive audience.

I was happy when the bus arrived and I could burrow into a seat towards the back of the bus and close my eyes. I had had enough excitement for one day.




Scary Self-Talker

terror text

google images

It started with the man in the seat across from me talking to himself, or so I thought, until I saw his ear buds and realized he was on the phone. A thin man in shades and a white button down shirt sat next to me. His right leg pushed into mine—yes, the man-spread—and then the right elbow into my left arm. I gave him a quick once-over, hoping he’d understand that meant “stop it.” He spread for a while, then unspread. Unlike most of the other commuters, he had no “occupation”: he wasn’t reading, talking on the phone, texting, doing makeup, clipping his nails, or perusing a newspaper or kindle. Then it began.

“Whatever you say, dear,” he said. It had an eerie quality to it.

I wondered if he was talking to me.

It was neither spoken in full voice nor a whisper.

I half-glanced in his direction, hoping to see a Bluetooth or ear buds, letting me know that he was on the phone. No Bluetooth or ear buds. His elbow bumped me again, but I let it go.

The muttering continued. I listened to Pandora radio on my iPhone, hoping to block it out. At the “tear drop” toll plaza, it gained momentum.

I had the sense that this man might be unstable, so I no longer even half-glanced in his general direction, fearing that he might lash out. I thought of the man on the Greyhound bus who decapitated his dozing seatmate. Did he have a knife?

I was afraid to doze off listening to music as I often do. Of course, this was nuts, right? Or not.

“If you see something, say something,” says the MTA, and NJ Transit advises us on billboards and the sides of buses to “text against terror.” Well, what do you do if you think your seatmate is a serial killer? I was trapped, a sitting duck.

I vowed to remain alert for the remainder of the trip. I scrunched myself into a tight ball so as not to offend him or let him think his thigh or elbow were in my way. That was no longer an issue. The issue was STAYING ALIVE.

Perhaps if he pulled something out of his back pocket, I could crawl under the seat in front of me or divert the weapon with one of the basic boxing moves my husband taught me.

It seemed we were stalled at the tear drop for an eternity, and my seatmate was not happy at all. The mumbling and shifting in his seat continued. If only I could see his eyes beneath the shades. Maybe I could reason with him, tell him my name so he viewed me as a person, not a potential victim.

If only we could pass through the tear drop. Finally, we were on our way. The muttering was less agitated. Phew! Perhaps he would spare my life.

When we arrived at Port Authority, he jumped out of his seat and forged ahead, which, as a rule, I find rude. Bus etiquette (unspoken) requires one to wait their turn to exit, meaning the people in the front row exit first and subsequent rows thereafter. In this case, I didn’t mind. The sooner he left, the better. Another white knuckle ride with NJ Transit.


Jesus Hates Commuting

I thought it was only me and thousands of other working people, but it turns out that Jesus hates commuting too. How do I know? Well, he appeared to me on the NJ Transit bus the other day.

He was a tall African American with chiseled features, wearing jeans, a button down white shirt and Birkenstocks.

Before sitting next to me, he removed the soiled coffee cup and food wrappers wedged in beside his seat.

“How can you stand this?” He said.

“I don’t know, Jesus. I guess we just get used to it.”

“And the mildew and dust?” He said, coughing.

“The same. If you don’t mind me asking, Jesus, why are you in New Jersey?”

“Trying to convince Governor Christie from running for president. Not sure I succeeded.”

We sat outside the “teardrop” NJ Turnpike toll plaza for almost thirty minutes. It was 9:00.

“I have to be somewhere at 9:30,” He said.

“So do most of us,” I said. “Can you fix it?”

“This is beyond my powers,” He said, shaking his dreadlocks.

I thought to myself, If that’s the case, then we are royally fucked. I didn’t think Jesus would approve of profanity.

Jesus sneezed.

“God bless you,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“Are you late for work every day?” Jesus said.

“Not every day, maybe every other day.”

“How do you accomplish anything ?”

“It’s a challenge.”

Jesus started to sweat.

“Hey, Jesus, do you want to listen to Pandora or read the paper? It’ll pass the time.”

“What’s Pandora?” He said.

“It’s a radio station on the iPhone.” I pulled out my phone to show Him.

“Oh, cool. Sure.”

He was rocking out to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama singing “I’ll Fly Away.”

It was 9:26 when we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal.

“Where are you headed, Jesus?”

“I’ve got to be at the Brooklyn Bridge to stop someone from doing something stupid.”

“You won’t make it, Jesus.”

“Shit! I mean, shoot,” He said.

“It’s okay, Jesus. Commuting’ll do that to you.”

“I don’t know how you stand it, Erica. I hate commuting.”

We shook hands before exiting the bus; then Jesus flew down a flight of stairs.

Oh, What a Beautiful Morning

Once a week or so, I treat myself to a real cup of coffee in the morning. By “real,” I mean non-office coffee, not that there’s anything wrong with it: it’s Green Mountain coffee in Keurig cups and it’s not bad. But I really enjoy the coffee at Au Bon Pain, better than at Starbucks or any other local coffee café. Better still, it’s conveniently located in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, right before the glass doors leading to the subway. Only a couple other commuters graced the Pain today—must be due to Holy Week—so no pushing and shoving or waiting to grab your package of sweetener or pitcher of milk product to complete the morning elixir.

While I was carefully mixing my ambrosial brew, I overheard one of the baristas (not sure if it’s correct to call Pain cashiers baristas since they don’t whip up exotic brews) say, “I’m sick of this song. Every morning, over and over, the same thing.”

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma was wafting through unseen speakers.

She was talking to her customer. “I wish they would play something else, or I could hook up my iPod.”

The customer seemed sympathetic, nodding.

She continued, “Yeah, it’s like ‘beautiful morning, beautiful morning’ over and over. It drives me nuts, and it’s on a loop, repeating itself with the same other songs. Dang.”

Her customer said, “Yeah, that must get tiresome.”

I started to feel a bit nostalgic, thinking how much I still enjoyed the song, even though it wasn’t being sung by Gordon MacRae, who played Curly in the 1955 film. It’s always his voice I hear when I think of Oklahoma.

I can see how it might become insufferable to hear the same songs piping in over and over again at your place of work, or anywhere, for that matter. Then I kind of envied her for being able to listen to music at work. In any event, it’s been a fine morning so far.

Chuckles, the Bus Driver

sad clown mural

Will Russell

Chuckles is the saddest bus driver you ever did see
but he isn’t testy, and he isn’t mean
he picks us up at the same time every day
but when you say “good morning,” he turns the other way

I’ve tried to get through to him, Lord knows I have
hoping on a Friday he wouldn’t be so sad
still sullen as ever, he turns the other cheek
perhaps he’s simply mild-mannered or meek

I wonder if I poked him or brought him a beer
you think that would cheer him, or would he think it queer?
of course, I’d tell him it was for after his shift
wouldn’t want him to get in trouble or drive us into a ditch

Perhaps a mug that says “Best Bus Driver Ever” would do the trick
or would that go against driver / commuter etiquette?
What about Bus Drivers Appreciation Day, I think it would be swell
they certainly deserve it, they go through hell

Commuters yell at them when buses are late
we know they’re not to blame, but sometimes haters gotta hate
we could storm Christie’s office, demand the transit system be improved
but Governor Christie, as we know, has more important things to do

Despite his glum demeanor, I hope Chuckles finds joy
perhaps he’s a Rhodes scholar, and is merely underemployed
at least he has a job, we all know that is a boon
so Happy Friday all, and remember, your bus driver has a heart too.

Do Not Fear the 13th

emperor pengins 2

Ian Duffy

Huddled like emperor penguins
at the bus stop
scarves muzzle faces,
yearning to breathe free
on Friday the 13th

A high, bright sun belies the raw
think of where you’d rather be–
a beach, an atoll, a mountain peak
on Friday the 13th

Snow twinkles like frosted cotton candy
but there’s no carnival
on the New Jersey Turnpike
on Friday the 13th

Our house is numbered 115
but should be 113–
fear of the 13th
my dearest pet was a black cat
fear of the black cat and number 13

No reason to fear
or black cats
or number 13
Instead, let us fear February–
the coldest, meanest month
that makes your hands crack and bleed
that makes commuting hell on earth
that makes more sense to me.


The Weight of Lunch

His and Her's

(photo credit: Jen Gallardo / flickr)

By L.E. Swenson

We started carrying lunch to work consistently about a year ago. Prior to that, I would grouse and complain that I didn’t want to carry lunch. It was too heavy! I had childhood socioeconomic creeps from growing up in the privileged section of the North Shore of Long Island. 

“Only the poor kids had their brown bags at lunch, and dammit, we are not that poor.”

We are that poor. Only poor people resort to the financial self help gurus like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman.

We did the math and that tore it. We were spending upwards of $300 to $400 a month on lunch and Starbucks and snacks. I was doing the lion’s share of the spending. Some days, I would buy breakfast too. None of this conspicuous consumption helped us get out of debt, nor did it do my waistline any good. In fact it helped my waistline turn into a wasteland. Rich Manhattan lunches for 10 to 20 bucks a pop were killing us financially and physically.

For those of you who live in sprawling commuter cities, let me take a moment to describe the plight of the NYC commuter.

My mother and brother were visiting me from Savannah, Georgia.

My brother who was 9 at the time asked our mother, “Why does he (me) carry a backpack?”

To which Mom replied, “This isn’t like home where if you forget something you can just drive home and get it. You have to bring everything with you when you leave the house in the morning.” 

My mom left the New York area for Savannah some 20 years ago and when asked, she always has the same response, “too many people,” followed by, “I don’t want to have to have a battle plan every time I leave the house.”

I have since moved to the suburbs and find that not only have our battle plans grown sparser, but the amount of stuff we have to leave the house with has increased in proportion. The suburban commute is not so much a battle plan as a war of attrition. You bear it as long as you can, and the battle plan is simply stated: “Get to work on time” and “Get home as quickly as possible,” and hope you didn’t forget anything.

To the urbanite/commuter here in NYC the weight of lunch can greatly increase the “schlep” factor. With the exceptions of the 1% who travel around the city in the relative comforts of cabs and flunky-driven cars, we urban backpackers have to be aware of our carry capacity, and lunch just adds to the weight. 

The New Normal demands that we grow a little stronger, carry a little more, indulge a little less and find more enjoyment in the little things. Like a homemade lunch. 

L.E. Swenson received his bachelor’s degree in English from S.U.N.Y. Buffalo. He went on to study Theater at the New School for Social Research and received his Masters of Fine Arts in 1999. He has performed in regional theater at Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theater and Shakespeare in Delaware Park. He has written, acted, coached and stage managed in the New York area and continues to write and work in New York.

Port Authority Ramp Preacher #1

For those of you who commute via Port Authority / 42nd Street, Times Square, you are sure to have seen and heard a variety of preachers. They are situated from the top to the bottom of the ramp that leads from Port Authority to the No. 7 and other subway lines.  

Preacher #1 is a middle-aged Latina in colorful clothes. She speaks rather quickly, kind of reminds me of Cal Worthington in the old TV commercial, “Go See Cal.”

If you need money, go to God.

If you need a job, go to God.

If you need a boyfriend, go to God.

If you need a new car, go to God.

If you need a doctor, go to God.

If you are sick, go to God.

If you are lonely, go to God.